1907 - Belfast on the brink of revolution

Manus Maguire, reprinted from the 1983 pamphlet,

Ireland, Socialist Reprints


1907 marked the first major confrontation between the forces of labour and the forces of capital in Ireland. The Belfast dockers' and carters; strike of that year saw the emergence of the working class onto the scene of history as an independent force.

The police became infected by the mood and mutinied. The power of the ruling class was shaken to its foundations. The power of the bigots was all but broken in Belfast as the workers, Protestant and Catholic, united behind the banners of the developing labour movement.

The unskilled workers of Belfast lived in grinding poverty. Wages were so low that children of 9 and 10 years were forced to work in the mills and factories. Poverty wages combined with primitive conditions and long hours, some as high as 90 hours a week. Then they had to live in damp, overcrowded houses, resulting in the rampant growth of epidemics like typhoid and TB.

The mood of the workers in the early years of the century was anti-Tory and anti-sectarian. The Tories had suffered a heavy defeat in Britain in the 1906 general election. In 1903 James Craig, (future Northern Ireland Prime Minster) was defeated as the Unionist candidate in North Fermanagh by an independent who stood for 'the people's cause against the landlords'. In 1906 the Unionists lost South Belfast, North Antrim and South Tyrone to independents. Indeed, out of 33 seats in the North they only held 15.

The Orange Order split in 1902 and the Independent Orange Order was established. It reflected, in a distorted way, opposition by working class Protestants to the Tory nature of the Orange Order. The Independent Orangemen soon produced a manifesto which put the case for unity between Catholics and Protestants.

Socialism popular

The labour and trade union movement was developing as a serious force in Belfast. Socialist ideas attracted wider and wider working class audiences. F H Crawford, the future UVF gunrunner, summed up the situation which existed in Belfast:

"We have lost a lot of staunch Unionist workmen in Belfast. They consider themselves betrayed by their leader, Mr Balfour, and have gone for the labour and socialist programmes. This is what we combat locally. The old Unionist enthusiasm is dead amongst the masses here. These are the facts and all in touch with the working men know it."

In January 1907 James Larkin arrived in Belfast and immediately set about organising and recruiting for the National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL). By February he had 400 members; by April, 2,000, and by May, nearly 4,500, mainly dockers and carters. The new trade union members were enthusiastic and very quickly several strikes broke out for decent wages and better conditions.

On April 26th unskilled workers at the Sirocco Engineering Works went on strike for more pay. On the same day Samuel Kelly, owner of Kelly's coal yard, attempted t sack union men. The result was a strike.

The extent of union recruitment had worried the employers who made plans for an offensive against he unions before they became too strong. Scabs were brought to Belfast. On Monday 6th May dockers employed at the Belfast Steamship Company refused to work with non-union labour and went on strike. Larkin intervened and convinced the men to return to work as he felt that action at this stage was still premature. It was necessary to strengthen and consolidate the union before coming into a full confrontation with the bosses. But when the dockers returned to work, they found themselves locked out and 53 scabs in their place. The workers were not to be cowed and another 140 dockers organised a sympathy strike.

On May 9th the locked-out coalmen from Kelly's Yard attacked scabs unloading coal at the docks. They overpowered the harbour police and force the scabs to retreat under a hail of rivets and lumps of coal. The confrontation was a great propaganda victory for the strikers and all too much for Samuel Kelly. He granted union recognition and wage increases from 6d (2.5p) to 5 shillings (25p) a week. The coalmen had won.

The locked-out dockers were not as successful. The shipping employers brought 300 Royal Irish Constabulary men into the docks to defend the remaining scabs. Even so, the scabs had to live on board the SS Caloric, moored in the middle of Belfast Lough each night.

On May 16th Larkin held a meeting outside Gallagher's Tobacco factory to form a union. The owner sacked seven girls who attended the meeting and the following day 1,000 went on strike.

On May 31st 500 iron moulders struck. Within a week 4,000 others had been laid off because of the strike. The coalmen throughout Belfast, emboldened by the victory of the men at Kelly's Yard, threatened strikes. They demanded a 2 shillings (10p) rise by 11th June. Four firms immediately conceded their demands and the rest backed down on June 17th. Firemen and seamen also went on strike.

On June 20th the National Union of Dock Labourers submitted a claim to all shipping companies in Belfast for a minimum wage of 27 shillings and 6 pence, (1.37 ) and a 60-hour week. The shipping bosses refused and an all-out dockers strike involving 3,00 men began on June 26th.

The dispute was no longer a local one. The shipping owners were linked with the big shipping and railway magnates in Britain and so the Belfast workers were talking on a large section of the British capitalists. Police and troops were used to prevent peaceful picketing. Strikers who tried to discuss with the scabs were batoned.

The carters refused to handle anything moved by scabs. By 28th June they submitted a claim for 26s (1.30) and union recognition. This was rejected by the bosses and on July 1st 1,000 carters joined the strike.

But while scabs on the docks were safe behind a cordon of police and soldiers, scab carters would have to venture out onto the streets. The first horse and cart to leave the docks was met by 3,000 strikers and supporters by the tome it reached High Street. It moved no further.

The scabs became demoralised and many demanded to be sent home. Nothing moved in Belfast. Perishable goods lay rotting in the July sun. On July 11th the coal importers locked out their workers and the strike movement extended further.

Sectarianism

The 'Twelfth' holiday was now upon Belfast, a period that has always been used to whip up sectarian tensions. In 1907 the employers hoped to use the bigots in an effort to cut across the strike by diverting the workers.

The majority of the unskilled in Belfast were Protestant; the majority of the strikers were also Protestant. The strike was naturally strongest in the Protestant working class areas where they lived but as the strike was extended it penetrated further into the Catholic working class areas.

In East Belfast, from the early days of the strike, the shipyard workers used 'shipyard confetti' (nuts, bolts, rivets, etc.) against scabs. In East Belfast scab carts were regularly ambushed by the workers. In one incident a traction engine driven by a scab was hit by a telegraph pole and its load ended up in the Connswater River. Workers rioted on the Ravenhill Road and in North Belfast. At the bottom of the Limestone Road 200 strikers ambushed and destroyed the load of another traction engine.

All the while the bosses attempted to inject the poison of sectarianism but they failed. The class issues were to the fore in Belfast.

On July 12th two Orange marches took place in Belfast. One was organised by the Orange Order, the other by the Independent Orange Order. At both strikers were applauded. At the Independent Orange Order demonstration the strike was given official backing and a collection for the strike was taken up. The speakers attacked the ruling class and called for unity between Protestant and Catholic.

The events on the 12th July strengthened the strike committee. The strike committee then took the decision to hold mass rallies in the main working class areas. Up until then mass meetings had been held each day at the Custom House near Corporation Street. These meetings attracted 5 - 10,000 workers and were used to explain the stage the strike was at and keep up the morale of the strikers. The Belfast Socialist Society organised mass meetings on Sundays at which 5 - 10,000 workers also attended. Branches of socialist groups sprang up in all parts of the city and their papers were on sale everywhere.

The first mass meeting to be held in the working class districts of the City was held n the Shankill on Monday night, 15th July. On Tuesday it was held on Templemore Avenue in east Belfast; on Wednesday night Clonard Gardens on the Falls; on Thursday 18th in Sandy Row and on Friday 19th on York Road in the North of the City. In all these meetings attracted over 50,000.

The strike was costing the trade unions huge amounts in terms of the 10 shillings (50p) strike pay and this was causing concern among the right wing TUC leaders. From July 19th leaders of various unions and of the TUC began arriving in Belfast. Their aim was to bring the strike to an end. The leaders of the coalmen and the ironmongers moved first. They ignored the wishes of their members on strike and settled with the bosses over the strikers heads. The President of the Ironfounders Society told his members that if they didn't return to work he would cut the strike pay.

Yet the retreat of the union leaders was taking place when an easy victory for the workers was in sight. Enormous support existed amongst the working class of Belfast - the city was on the verge of a general strike. Discontent had now begun to appear in the ranks of the police where there was clear sympathy for the strikers.

Solidarity

In Britain and the rest of Ireland workers had joined demonstrations to support the Belfast workers. Dockers in many ports refused to handle goods diverted from Belfast. A national dockers and carters strike could have been organised in Britain and Ireland which would have brought the bosses to their knees. But the trade union leaders refused to organise sympathetic action elsewhere.

The Belfast Trades Council organised a demonstration on July 26th, to show the extent of support in Belfast. The demonstration called for a Friday turned into a general strike and one of the biggest movements of the working class in the history of Belfast.

The march began in the city centre; it went to East Belfast, back to the city centre and up the Falls, down the Shankill to a mass rally of 200,000 outside the City Hall. It was so massive that four separate speakers' platforms were erected around the City Hall.

As this enormous movement unfolded a mutiny broke out within the police. The RIC men hadn't received a wage rise for years, they had to work long hours without overtime and now they had had enough.

On July 17th James Larkin had appealed to the policemen to go on strike. On July 19th a Constable Barrett was suspended because he refused to guard a scab.

A meeting was held on July 24th at Musgrave Street Barracks by discontented policemen. The Acting Commissioner, Morell, put a ban on the meeting but it went ahead and between 200 and 300 turned up. Commissioner Morell and senior officers were forced to withdraw from the room. The meeting went ahead. The police had mutinied, sending shockwaves throughout the ruling class who moved quickly to suppress the news.

The mutineers now organised a mass meeting of all Belfast policemen for 3 days later outside Musgrave Street Barracks. Between 70-80% of Belfast's policemen turned up. Before the meeting several barracks had hidden their weapons to prevent them being seized by reliable police units or the military. The news of the mutiny was imminent.

But Barrett and the other leaders had little experience in organising strikes and made tactical mistakes. The authorities were given a week to give into the demands on pay and for Barrett's reinstatement before they would go on strike. One week was all that was needed by the Government t outflank the mutineers. One week to rush armed soldiers to Belfast and one week to transfer the mutineers to the more backward rural areas.

Reinforcements

The Government and the ruling class took no chances and 6,000 troops were immediately dispatched for Belfast with a further 1,000 policemen. At the same time the Government was legally bound to wait for the Lord Mayor of Belfast to request help. In these circumstances the 'Liberal' Government dispensed with such formalities. By July 31st 10,000 troops and 1,000 police had arrived in the city, more than at any time of the present 'troubles'. Gatling guns and artillery were also on the way.

On August 1st nine warships arrived in Belfast Lough. By Friday 2nd August - the day before the police strike was due to begin - all the leaders of the mutiny had been transferred out of Belfast. Barrett was dismissed from the force and six others suspended.

The strike was defeated before it began. On August 3rd Barrett spoke to a meeting of 5,000, mostly strikers, but the mutiny was also at an end. While the dockers' and carters' strike continued, the strike leaders made no real attempt to link up with or advise the police. The TUC leaders, in particular, saw it as totally separate despite the enthusiasm it generated amongst the workers. Even when troops were drafted into the city the TUC leaders couldn't see how they would be used first against the police and then against the workers.

The weekend of 26th-27th July had seen the strike movement reach a pinnacle. The question of who controlled society was actually being posed; the working class or the capitalist class. The strike could now only win if it was escalated. The TUC should have called for general strike action throughout Britain preventing the movement of troops by ship and rail. The capitalist state would have been impotent leading to a possible victory for the workers, but the capitalists moved rapidly to stamp their authority on society. A state of martial law existed in Belfast. Troops physically broke up pickets and under enormous police and military guard the scab carters began to work in Belfast.

But the workers were still far from beaten and the ruling class again turned to the weapon of sectarianism in order to defeat the strike. On August 8th mill workers on the Falls joined the strike and workers attacked scabs. After several attacks on scabs on 10th and 11th of August, the authorities decided to send in police and troops. On the evening of 11th August 3,200 police and troops poured into the Falls. They unleashed a reign of terror. Workers were beaten and intimidated, homes were broken into and wrecked; batons and bayonets were used freely.

The workers defended themselves with whatever came to hand against soldiers running amok. Two workers were shot dead. It became evident that the events on the Falls were deliberately provoked in an attempt to brand the whole strike as a nationalist plot.

But the events on the Falls were neither nationalist nor sectarian. It was a defensive movement of the working class against police and military provocation. Protestant workers from other pats of the city flooded into the Falls in case of a repeat of the police and military activity. A reporter wrote at the time saying that "had they (the Protestant workers) received the slightest provocation from the military police, the riot of Sunday and Monday would have become a revolution".

Larkin moved quickly to cut across the attempts of the Unionists and the press to divide the strike. He issued posters to be put up all over Belfast which urged the workers "not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists but as Belfastmen and workers stand together and don't be misled by the employers' game of dividing Catholic and Protestant."

Meanwhile the TUC leaders had pushed for a solution to the carters' strike. A meeting was organised and the TUC argued that nothing more could be gained. No alternative strategy to win the strike was advocated. The carters agreed to go back. The employers conceded a 26s shillings (1.30) wage but refused union recognition. The employers of the dockers finally agreed to let the dispute of to arbitration. At the end of August this reported; it granted some increases but rejected union recognition. By the end of August 1907 all the striking dockers and carters were back at work.

Prelude to 1913

Those dockers initially locked-out remained locked out. Although minor disputes continued the dockers and carters strike had come to an end. The movement was partially defeated, but far from broken. It marked the first real flexing of the muscles of Irish Labour and laid down the basis and tradition for future struggles being the prelude to the great movement of the working class in Dublin in 1913 (see Militant 114).

The movement's failure was due largely to the betrayal of the TUC leaders and the inexperience of the Belfast leaders. The Unionists had constantly tried to trap the movement in the snare of sectarianism. The Catholic Church and Joe Devlin, the Nationalist leader, attacked 'Larkinism' and denounced the strike. Arthur Griffith, the Sinn Fein leader condemned the strike as 'the English disease'.

The strike leaders had always argued that the strike was 'above politics' or non-political. They invited onto their strike platforms Unionist and nationalist leaders. Instead they should have used these platforms to expose these capitalist parties and argue the case for a socialist Labour Party.

James Larkin explained that the movement has two arms - industrial and political. The strike was like 'fighting with one arm tied behind your back.'

Common Misery

It was not until 1910 when James Connolly returned from America that the real lessons of the 1907 strike began to be learnt. Connolly stood for a working class party - a Labour Party - independent of the capitalists. As a delegate from the Belfast Trades Council in 1912, Connolly moved a resolution at the Irish TUC conference for the establishment of a Labour Party.

The lessons of 1907 must be learnt for the Labour movement today. The leaders of the trade unions in the North remain politically in the last century. But the common poverty of the workers has returned. This common exploitation will lay the basis for new 1907s, huge strike movements of the working class, which will pose more starkly in front of the working class the question of organising politically to confront sectarianism. Their weapon will be a mighty socialist Labour Party that will become a beacon for the whole working class in Northern Ireland. It will be a party founded on the traditions of struggle of 1907.

Manus Maguire



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